A science graduate who loves history and biographies. Sometimes I end up reading more science history than science.
Who Is a Famous Woman Scientist?
Once when I was attending a seminar at college, the speaker asked us to name five scientists. Everyone had more than five names to add to the list. After that, he asked someone on the front row to tell the names of five women scientists. The student couldn’t name anyone other than Marie Curie! Someone else mentioned Ada Lovelace and that was it.
This must probably be the situation for most of us. So, in this article, we are going to look at five other women scientists who made remarkable contributions in the world of science, yet are not celebrated enough. We will be covering the following women scientists:
- Emmy Noether
- Rosalind Franklin
- Henrietta Leavitt
- Ida Noddack
- Janaki Ammal
1. Emmy Noether (1882-1935)
Revolutionized the way physicists study the universe.
Emmy Noether was a German mathematician who made unparalleled contributions in the field of Abstract Algebra and Topology. She did her studies at the University of Erlangen, but was only allowed to audit classes because of her gender. She was also not able to take up full-time academic positions because of the existing sexist regulations.
She was a contemporary to stalwarts like Hilbert, Klein and Einstein. She is widely known for her theorem – Noether’s Theorem – which revolutionized the way physicists study the universe. She has also contributed to the resolution of a nagging puzzle in Einstein’s general theory of relativity. In one of his letters, Einstein wrote to Hilbert:
“Yesterday I received from Miss Noether a very interesting paper on invariants. I'm impressed that such things can be understood in such a general way. The old guard at Göttingen should take some lessons from Miss Noether! She seems to know her stuff.”
Also, 2021 marks the centenary of her landmark paper on ring theory. In 1933, Noether lost her job as Jewish professors were being fired from their positions due to Hitler’s policies and thus she moved to the USA. She passed away at the age of 53 following tumor surgery.
2. Rosalind Franklin (1920-1958)
More than a “dark lady of DNA.”
Rosalind Franklin was an English chemist and x-ray crystallographer. She is widely known for her contributions to the discovery of understanding the structure of DNA. But, she wasn’t given credit for this during her lifetime and this controversy led to her being called “the wronged heroine,” “the dark lady of DNA,” etc.
It is said that the Watson-Crick duo got their inspiration to form the double helix model of DNA after seeing some of Franklin’s unpublished data – called the “photo 51,” an x-ray diffraction image she obtained along with her student Raymond Gosling – but failed to credit her. They talked about it only after her death. Thus, she remained unrecognized during her lifetime.
Apart from her research about the structures of viruses, her initial focus was on understanding the structure of coal and graphite, which contributed immensely to the coal and coking industry. She obtained a Ph.D. from Cambridge for these studies in 1945. Her life was very short. Franklin lost her life to ovarian cancer at the age of 37.
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3. Henrietta Leavitt (1868-1921)
The woman who discovered how to measure the universe.
Henrietta Leavitt is an American astronomer who worked at the Harvard College Observatory, examining photographic plates to measure and catalogue the brightness of stars. This was some sort of a data entry job, as women were not allowed to use telescopes in the lab and were given “detail-oriented” and rote jobs.
During her work, she found out that a certain class of stars called the Cepheid variable stars have a particular property, that they change brightness from day to day and the brighter the star, the longer it took to change its brightness. This finding allowed astronomers to find a way to measure distances up to 20 million light-years (earlier techniques allowed only measurements up to hundreds of light-years).
Her work was not recognized or credited during her lifetime. It got attention only when Edwin Hubble used her data to measure galaxy distances which later led to his discovery that the universe is expanding. She died at the age of 53 from stomach cancer. The Swedish Academy of Science tried to nominate her for Nobel Prize in 1926 but later found out that she wasn't alive (Nobel Prize cannot be awarded posthumously). Next time you look up at the sky, please remember Henrietta Leavitt.
4. Ida Noddack (1896-1978)
First proposed the idea of nuclear fission.
Ida Noddack was a German chemist and physicist who is known for her co-discovery of rhenium (element 75) and her proposal of the idea of nuclear fission. She obtained her Ph.D. from the Technical University of Berlin. As she did not want to teach at all, she decided to get into an industry career despite the fact that women were a minority in that sector. Thus, she became the first woman to hold a professional chemist’s position in the chemical industry in Germany.
Her paper, correcting Enrico Fermi’s conclusion of producing transuranic elements is historically significant as it is in this paper that she proposed the possibility that "it is conceivable that the nucleus breaks up into several large fragments, which would of course be isotopes of known elements but would not be neighbors of the irradiated element," which later forms the idea of nuclear fission. She was nominated thrice for the Nobel Prize.
5. Janaki Ammal (1897-1984)
The woman who sweetened a nation.
Janaki Ammal was an Indian botanist who worked with sugarcane and eggplants. Cytogenetics was her specialized area. She is also known as “India’s first woman botanist.” She obtained her Ph.D. in 1931 from the University of Michigan.
She is famous for developing a sweeter variety of sugarcane that suits Indian weather conditions. This helped sugarcane agriculture in India as earlier most of the sugarcane was imported from countries like Indonesia and Papua New Guinea. Not being able to cope with gender and caste discrimination in her home country, she went back to London to pursue her studies.
At the invitation of India’s first prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru, she came back to India and went on to serve her nation as the Director-General of the Botanical Survey of India. A flower was named in her honor, Magnolia Kobus Janaki Ammal. Next time you take sugar, kindly remember her name.
Fighting Gender Discrimination in Science
These are just a few examples of women who fought gender discrimination to earn their own name in the field. A lot of them had to work under male pseudonyms in order to get recognition. Some of them weren’t recognized in their lifetime at all. So, as science enthusiasts and beneficiaries, it is our responsibility to read and learn about such pioneering women.
Sources and Further Reading
- Rosalind Franklin Was So Much More Than the ‘Wronged Heroine’ of DNA
One hundred years after her birth, it’s time to reassess the legacy of a pioneering chemist and X-ray crystallographer. One hundred years after her birth, it’s time to reassess the legacy of a pioneering chemist and X-ray crystallographer.
- Emmy Noether | Biography & Facts | Britannica
Emmy Noether, German mathematician whose innovations in higher algebra gained her recognition as the most creative abstract algebraist of modern times.
- Henrietta Leavitt – Celebrating the Forgotten Astronomer | aavso
One century ago, in 1912, an astronomer named Henrietta Swan Leavitt made a discovery that was to become one of the cornerstones of modern astronomical science.
- Ida Noddack | Atomic Heritage Foundation
Ida Noddack, née Tacke, was born in Wesel, Lackhausen in 1896. She earned her doctorate from the Technical University of Berlin in 1921, and became the first woman to hold a professional chemist's position in the German chemical industry.
- The Pioneering Female Botanist Who Sweetened a Nation and Saved a Valley | Smithsonian Magazine
One of India’s finest plant scientists, Janaki Ammal spurred her country to protect its rich tropical diversity.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.